1. The Education Gradebook

Pasco teachers say too many kids miss too many days of classes

For weeks, the Pasco County School Board has discussed whether it should allow students with unexcused absences to make up missed school work.

Board vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin has suggested the question might be misdirected.

After asking teachers about the makeup work issue, Beaudoin said, she learned several had greater concerns about students with excessive absences than whether the students should be allowed to complete their assignments. Some children are falling far behind, she suggested, because they miss so many days of classes.

Beaudoin asked what the teachers could do to get extra support.

Student services director Melissa Musselwhite said the district's early warning system, which monitors student attendance, discipline and grades, indicates that the vast majority of schools have 95 percent or more of students without attendance problems. She suggested the issues lie with a small core of children.

Musselwhite told the board that the district has services in place if teachers can't find answers by working directly with parents.

All schools have social workers assigned, she said, who can help identify problems as small as needing an alarm clock to as critical as finding transportation to campus. Beyond that, she added, the district has connections with counselors and other outside entities for more direct help to families. And it can deal with truancy and juvenile justice agencies in the most extreme cases.

Superintendent Kurt Browning stressed that, in his view, "moms and dads are the gatekeepers on attendance. We take care of them when they are here, but we can't go to their homes and get them up and get them dressed."

Still, he acknowledged that curbing chronic absenteeism among those students who miss the most is an issue that continues to need attention.

It's been on the district's plate since before he became superintendent, he said, and it hasn't been cured to his satisfaction.

Browning said he would work with staff to pull together the latest data and information so the board can hold a summer workshop where "we can problem-solve around this."

With that issue temporarily set aside, board member Cynthia Armstrong tried again to convince her colleagues to reconsider the makeup work rule for unexcused absences — at least for high school students.

Maybe elementary and middle school students can't be responsible for whether their parents write notes excusing a missed day, Armstrong said, but high school students should take that responsibility. Otherwise, she suggested, the schools aren't preparing them for life after classes, when they must meet deadlines and other requirements.

"I heard from administrators and teachers who really felt there could be abuse of the system," she said. "We're just not teaching responsibility."

Her call fell flat, though, as the others on the board said they wanted to stick with the new direction, noting that even adults can get extensions on things like paying income taxes, though penalties do apply — just as they will under this new approach to missed work.

The code of conduct comes up for final consideration on May 7.

RECORDING MEETINGS: Pasco County school district officials have begun conferring with their policy consultant for the anticipated move to video recording their meetings for public viewing.

They've already started coalescing around some key points as they prepare governing rules for the process, which board members requested before turning the cameras on.

The initial draft policy language would state that the board "may" record the meetings, to indicate that it faces no obligation to do so. It also makes clear that any videos created will not be considered an official record of the board's actions, though the district would preserve the files as required by state open records laws.

Formal board minutes and audio recordings would remain the official records of the work meetings.

These ideas would cover many of the concerns raised by board attorney Dennis Alfonso as members discussed the pros and cons of having videotapes of their sessions, and which parts to include. The board indicated its preference to record all of the meetings except the public comment sessions dealing with items not appearing on the day's agenda.

In advance of any change, the board agreed to split public comment into two session. People speaking about items appearing on the agenda would be given preference, while those wanting to talk about general issues would be given the balance of the allocated hour at the end of the meeting.

Assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley has asked other administrators for feedback on the wording he's drawn up, so he can get a final review from the Ohio-based consultant. A new policy could be in effect for the videos to begin by June.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL: The United School Employees of Pasco and the Pasco school district plan to finalize their tentative 2018-19 contract by mid-May. They reached the deal on April 13, following a mediated settlement on outstanding issues.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the contract at its May 7 meeting. Teachers are slated to hold their ratification ballot the next day, with counting to take place on May 10.

Anticipating a positive outcome, the district payroll department has begun the computer work necessary to get the new pay agreement into teachers' pockets quickly. The goal is to have the new pay rates included in May 17 checks, with retroactive back pay available to eligible teachers as a lump sum in June 21 checks.

To get to this point, negotiators had to reach short-term compromises on two key areas — performance evaluations and training — that would also allow them to seek longer-range solutions. Where did they land?

Regarding evaluations, the sides accepted a memorandum of understanding that would hold in place rules established over several months by a joint district-union working group, and subject any complaints to the district's employee grievance process. At the end of the contract, the sides would reconvene to discuss the best way to apply evaluations and their guidelines.

Union members have called for the rules to remain a part of the negotiated contract, so they are subject to bargaining and not open to unilateral changes. The district wants to remove most of the details, saying it is a management prerogative to determine evaluation standards.

Regarding training, the district aimed to set up open-ended times for teacher professional development at schools facing state turnaround and accountability requirements, because of persistently low state grades. The union aimed to clarify that teacher planning time would not be usurped for these trainings, which they wanted to be voluntary.

In the mediated agreement, the sides limited professional development to the first three planning days on the teacher work calendar, not to exceed half of each day. They also stated that the sessions would not be required, but would count toward certification training expectations.

The deal also added provisions relating to teachers' state Value-Added Measure scores, which can be used to remove low-scoring teachers from schools in the accountability system. Because the scores often are not available until the summer, the district relies on projections to determine whether teachers must be transferred out of low-performing schools.

The agreement would provide removed teachers a right to return to their schools, if their scores are "effective" or higher and a vacancy exists. This was something the union had requested.

These details and the rest of the contract must be approved by the School Board and a majority of teachers in order to take effect.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.